Doctor Fate

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Doctor Fate

(pop culture)

Like his fellow supernatural hero, the Spectre, Doctor Fate was born and canceled during World War II, but endless revivals have kept the character in the public eye for decades. Doctor Fate first appeared in May 1940 in More Fun Comics #55, under the hands of journeymen creators Gardner Fox and Howard Sherman, and was DC Comics’ eleventh superhero (although by this point magicians of various descriptions were already a staple of comic books). With his blue-and-yellow bodysuit and his identity-concealing golden helmet, he was one of the more striking heroes of the time—albeit a rather impersonal one, as his face was permanently covered. Doctor Fate was Kent Nelson who, at the age of twelve, had stumbled across some ancient Sumerian ruins while exploring with his archaeologist father. An escaping gas killed the father, but the son awakened an ancient energy being called Nabu, who infused him with power, causing him to grow to instant adulthood, and equipping him with mystical artifacts: a helmet, an amulet, and a cape.

Back home in the United States, Nelson’s power was almost limitless, which made his initial adventures somewhat predictable; after all, there can be little suspenseful drama if you know that your hero will always be victorious. This deficiency was partly addressed halfway into the character’s career when his helmet was shortened, apparently limiting his powers to a degree, but coming up with suitably powerful villains was always a problem for his writers. In his civilian identity, Nelson operated out of an eerie-looking brick tower in Salem, Massachusetts, and courted the society beauty Inza Cramer. In an unusual twist, Nelson soon revealed his secret identity to Cramer and later married her. Like most of DC’s main heroes of the period, Doctor Fate was inducted into the Justice Society and starred in their first eighteen adventures, but after the can cellation of his own strip in 1944, he was soon removed from the Society, too.

Despite Doctor Fate’s early years being generally unexceptional, when the Justice Society was revived in the 1960s, the character became an integral part of the group and took part in almost all of their regular Justice League crossovers until the mid-1980s. When All Star Comics was brought back in the 1970s, Doctor Fate was in action again and he featured in most succeeding Justice Society outings. In the years since the war, comics had increasingly embraced powerful mystical heroes, and Doctor Fate’s cosmic abilities were more and more in keeping with what the fans had come to expect. A 1976 one-shot, drawn by Walter Simonson, was particularly well received (and has been reprinted periodically ever since) but readers had to wait another twelve years before Doctor Fate was given his own title, and by then the helmet already had a different occupant.

This new Doctor Fate was, in fact, two people: ten-year-old Eric Strauss and his stepmother Linda, who merged to become one person; Kent Nelson was reduced to being their mentor. After a couple of years, the mantle of Fate was passed on to Nelson’s wife Cramer, as the writers began to develop the idea that the spirit of Nabu, which was what had given Doctor Fate his (or her or their!) power, resided in the helmet and other arti-facts—so almost anyone could take over the role. Cramer’s Doctor Fate seemed as interested in urban renewal and ecological matters as fighting demons or sorcerers, so there was no place for her in the “nasty nineties,” and she was replaced by the character’s fourth incarnation.

Jared Stevens was a treasure hunter who found Doctor Fate’s helmet, and was thereby summoned back to the tower in Salem. When the tower was destroyed in a mysterious explosion, the various artifacts became merged with Stevens, while Nelson and Cramer disappeared in a puff of smoke. Stevens became, simply, Fate. That the old helmet was now transformed into a dagger was symptomatic of Stevens’ unlikeable personality, and few mourned when his incarnation of the character was short-lived. After three years in the wilderness, Fate reappeared in the first issue of a 1999 Justice Society revival, only to be killed off immediately; in a telling editorial comment, he was dispatched with his own knife. However, the comic’s next few issues were devoted to the search for a new host for the spirit of Nabu, and in a mind-bogglingly complex plot twist Hector Hall (formerly the Silver Scarab from Infinity Inc.), son of the first Hawkman, was summoned from a dream realm, reincarnated as a newborn baby, suddenly transformed into a fully grown adult, and inaugurated as Doctor Fate the fifth!

Eventually Dr. Kent V. Nelson, the grand-nephew of the first Kent Nelson, obtained the Helmet of Nabu and became the current Doctor Fate. This new version of Doctor Fate was co-created by legendary writer Steve Gerber in Countdown to Mystery #1 (November 2007). This series was Gerber’s last work in comics; he died while working on it.

Doctor Fate appears in animation in Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League, Justice League Unlimited, and Batman: The Brave and the Bold. Doctor Fate also appears in live action, played by actor Brent Stait, in a 2010 episode of Smallville. —DAR & PS